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Illuminating Darkness

Meet Cheryl Mossberg, a lifelong artist who has become a master of light and shadow.

Written by Deidra F. Jackson  |  Photographed by Joe Worthem

Artist Cheryl Mossberg’s oil-based paintings command your attention. The striking and ethereal works by the 44-year-old full-time Oxford studio artist beckon you to lean in closer to absorb all their minute details. Some instead inspire you to fall back to create some distance and let the works’ breadth and depth soak in.

Mossberg, a Birmingham native, and artist-in-residence at Heartbreak Coffee in Oxford, has been an artist all her life. The University of Mississippi art graduate, who transferred from Auburn University as a volleyball student athlete, said she remembers always having art supplies, and, most significantly, her parents’ steadfast blessings to pursue fine arts as a career.

“There was never a time in my life when I didn’t have the means to create something,” said Mossberg, who is one of seven children. “I started at Auburn, and I was the only person in the art department who had my parent’s approval. Everybody else, they were all like outcasts … the black sheep of the family. I was, literally, the only one who had my parents’ full support. I think that is what has given me so much courage and confidence.”

Mossberg casts her artistic interpretation of people, animals and nature in various colors, hues, sheens, lights and shadows that represent the diversity she said she loves. Chiaroscuro, the artistic use of strong contrasts between light and dark, characterizes her paintings. Lovers of masters, such as Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, who were famous for using the technique, may find solace in Mossberg’s work, a comparison she would eschew. 

“Any time I do paint any subject, whether it’s a person or an animal, there has to be light cast on it from a very strong source,” Mossberg said. “I just love the dramatic effect that creates.”

Mossberg’s repertoire includes “Pegasus: Fixed Upon the Mount,” a gallant winged horse seemingly drenched in pastel pigment; “Out of the Stone,” a framed portrait of a sphinx bearing the head of a contemplative woman with a flower in her hair, as buttery flourishes reflect onto her face; and the diminutive but mighty “Bucephalus,” an 11-by-14-inch print depicting Alexander the Great’s horse, as a metallic blue-black stallion, highlighted by an entrancing beige and pearl mosaic mixed-media background. Her paintings average about 3-by-4 feet.

“Usually, a painting is an excuse to get color out of my head,” said Mossberg, who with her husband Matt, a managing partner at West Group Holdings in Oxford, has three sons aged 17, 14 and 10. “And then, I’ve got to figure out, how am I going to use these colors? How am I going to get that on canvas?”

She resolves this dilemma through what she calls “color itches,” her compulsive need to explore colors further until she has found the right places to put them. On the floor of her studio/workspace on Highway 30 East, sits dozens of small canvases of varying sizes, saturated with splotches of assorted shades of colors from top to bottom, all evidence of her reflective exploration. At any given time, Mossberg’s black giant schnauzer, Evie, her “studio dog,” can be found lying nearby.

“I get (the itch), and I’ve got to scratch it,” said Mossberg, who also studied ceramics and incorporates mixed media into her paintings. “I’ve got to get it out. I see (the color), and I have to stare at it, and then I start dreaming about it. I’ve got to see, ‘What can I do with this new color?’”

Mossberg also does her own woodworking and custom frames her artwork, building her own canvases, which is uncommon for a painter. Her father, whom she describes as very artistic, bought her first saw as a Christmas gift when she graduated college some 25 years ago.

“(Custom framing) offers my buyers something that otherwise might be hard to achieve,” Mossberg said. “It’s hard to take your art anywhere. If it’s a 6-foot canvas or whatever, it’s near impossible to transport. I can do all of it here, and it’s custom.”

Eight of Mossberg’s paintings are on display at Heartbreak Coffee. On a weekday afternoon, as customers mill about the restaurant, the artwork conveys an imposing presence, its images and hues simultaneously accentuating a sense of liveliness and solemnity. 

“These walls are Cheryl Mossberg’s walls now,” said Morgan Pennington, manager of Heartbreak Coffee and friend of Mossberg. “People love to see local artwork on the walls while they’re drinking local coffee. It’s a whole immersive experience, and we’ve already had two of our customers buy the paintings on the wall.”

Though her art is not in any gallery, Mossberg said her work has gained exposure and she has sold hundreds of paintings since she graduated college, including some commissions over the years. Last October, Heartbreak Coffee featured Mossberg’s work in an art show that attracted some 400 people who viewed her paintings suspended from the ceiling. Her work continues to be on display there. Mossberg cherishes the opportunity, she said.

“It’s very low-key,” Mossberg said. “It’s my speed. I like the idea of not being somewhere fancy. I appreciate people finding and falling in love with my art because of what it is and not where it is.”

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